‘This needs big money, coupled with doing something about the education system and especially physics teaching.’ These weren’t the words of Prof John Perkins, who published his report for the government on Britain’s engineering skills shortage this week. Instead they came from Prof John Wood, who published his report for the government on Britain’s engineering skills shortage in November 2000.
It was no wonder then that the Perkins Review came with a lurking feeling that we had heard it all before: engineering is vital to the country; a growing skills gap risks hampering economic growth; we need to improve education and attract more young people into the profession. Much of this was being said 30 years ago, never mind 13.
The difference with the new report is that it places responsibility for addressing these issues squarely on the shoulders of industry and the educational sector as well as government. Perkins recommends several very specific activities that engineering firms and their employees can engage in to boost recruitment into the sector and improve training, although there are several more vague points (employers must propose ideas to reduce short-term shortages) and an absence of more structural changes. Nonetheless, it is a welcome call to action for a profession that cannot rely on anyone but itself to solve its problems.
The Engineer came to a similar conclusion in its recent report on how some companies have successfully increased the number of women engineers they recruit, part of the special Women in Engineering magazine we published this week. It wasn’t through government sponsorship or quotas, but by repeatedly and consistently reaching out to more girls and young women, visiting schools and universities to spread the word and making sure factory trips and educational programmes weren’t dominated by male students.
It’s rare to find an engineering company in the UK that doesn’t struggle to hire people with the right skills. Even the big firms whose apprenticeship and graduate schemes are overflowing can find it difficult to recruit for more specialised, experienced positions, and are typically worried about employment in their supply chains. It’s why, despite often-heard grumbles, average salaries for engineering graduates are above the UK norm. And, as has been the case in many other sectors of the economy over the last decade, it’s why employers have often turned to immigration to fill the gap.
But, as Perkins recognises, this is not a long-term solution. And it doesn’t matter what salary a job offers if there aren’t adequately trained people to apply for it. Government, universities and colleges need to work with employers and institutions to make sure qualifications and training schemes are up to scratch to produce more sufficiently skilled home-grown engineers.
Perhaps most importantly we need to recognise the implications of the sad reality that engineering is not even considered never mind aspired to as a career choice for the majority of young people. A better careers advice service is vital but, whether it’s due to a bizarre British snobbery that favours bean counting and litigation over the art of designing and making things, or more often through simple ignorance of the possibilities engineering offers, this issue can’t be addressed through government reforms alone. Nor is it a problem that will go away just by throwing money at it, although it probably wouldn’t hurt companies to look again at how their salaries compare with those overseas.
It requires a concerted effort to explain to young people, teachers, parents and the public in general what engineers do and why they have such valuable and rewarding careers. Whether it’s by offering work experience, approaching schools to give talks to students and staff or even getting more involved directly in education, engineers and their employers can make a difference. The time for reports is over; let’s take action. Problem solving is what engineers are good at.